Food for Thought – Simple Rules with Dr. Chris Bingham

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

By Joseph Hiatt with Dr. Chris Bingham

If you’re not familiar with the Food for Thought series, you need to be. Held several times throughout the year, these lunchtime meetings have the feel of an open board meeting with a high powered speaker, making them both informational and motivational. I had the privilege of attending the latest Food for Thought session which was led by Dr. Chris Bingham, Professor of Strategy and Entrepreneurship. Dr. Bingham’s easy-going manner makes it to follow his presentations, and the boardroom environment encourages active participation from the attendees. This particular session was no exception.

The conversation opened with a talk about starlings and their flight and flocking patterns. If you’ve ever watched the way they fly together, it almost seems miraculous that they can stay together, moving and turning as a collective. As it turns out, researchers have created complex algorithms to describe and predict their movements. Dr. Bingham points out that while these algorithms have some value, two simple rules can actually better predict their movements: stay close to your neighbor and avoid collisions.

Many successful people and businesses can attribute their success to following simple rules. Simple rules should be defined as rules that allow flexibility and interpretation, but also provide clear guidelines as needed. The hugely successful English band Coldplay has a list of rules that it has followed, to which the lead singer, Chris Martin, attributes his success. One of these rules is to “always keep mystery. Not many interviews.” Of course that leaves plenty of room for interpretation, which is largely the point. Structure is important, but so is flexibility.

Dr. Bingham goes on to talk about the balance between structure and flexibility. Structure brings efficiency, but there is a tradeoff, and depending on the situation, you might want either one. In a slowly changing environment, you would want lots of structure to support efficiency. But, in a constantly changing environment, flexibility is vital and organizations need to deliberately pare back structure such that they can adapt and change. The point is that simple rules are strict but not restrictive. They allow room for improvisation such that firms can adjust to meet the dynamism in their environment.

What does this mean to you, and how can you apply it to your life? Think about your job search. Do you have simple rules guiding your search? Or, are you trying to explore all options? If the latter, you run the risk of burnout, confusion, and lack of focus. Simple rules such as “focus on finance” help provide direction and coherence. Think about how you organize your day. Do you have simple rules for your daily schedule (e.g., “avoid meetings in the morning”)? If not, then perhaps you are not gaining the benefits from simple structure.

Overall, simple rules promote better decisions and collective behavior, and can actually outperform more complicated strategies. Thus, the counter-intuitive insight is that when markets and environments become more dynamic and complex, the best strategies are the simplest.